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by Bill Gibron

19 May 2009

Addiction is a terrible thing. Not only is it damaging physically and psychologically, but it destroys aspects of one’s life that they barely have direct control over. Families suffer, as do friends, careers, and acquaintances, and while the person under the spell of their own individual affliction has no real connection to said reality, the repercussions can be powerful and last forever. Of all the filmmakers poised to make a profound statement on such a compulsion, Giuseppe Andrews would be king of the shortbus list. By utilizing a cast of trailer park residents, some of whom have their own battles with the bottle to contend with, he has an authentic source of real human misery to work with. So what does he go and do with his examination of addiction, Monkey? He makes the most literally symbolic statement on the subject ever attempted.

Apartheid has been ordered to Green Hockers Rehab Center for excessive drinking. His habit is so bad that his life has become one continuous case of the DTs. As a matter of fact, a disembodied old man with the same initials seems to be controlling his attempt at sobriety. Forced to wear a monkey around his neck to highlight his problem, said simian comes with two bags of rocks around its legs. The longer Apartheid stays, the more rocks will be removed and the less weight he will have to be subjected. Of course, DT doesn’t help. He offers disquieting visions of smiley faced stones that punch people out, remote control apes that choke people to death, and others with equally oppressive addictions of their own. As he battles with the bottle, losing most of the time, all Apartheid wants to do is get away from this abusive clinic. Little does he know that, just like Hotel California, he can check out any time he likes, but he can never, ever, ever, leave.

by Bill Gibron

17 May 2009

Until recently, David Cronenberg was known only as the king of biological horror. His brutal looks at life and the physiological foundations of fear made uncomfortable classics like Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome fright film masterworks. Today, he dabbles in all manner of contemporary drama, cruelty tingeing works as diverse as A History of Violence, eXistenZ, and his brilliant Russian mob movie Eastern Promises. As with any auteur, it’s interesting to look back on their entire career and trace the steps that brought their visionary style to the fore. And while many may laugh at the suggestion, the drag racing morality tale Fast Company is completely within his surreal sphere of aesthetic influence. Made in 1979, this fascinating film proves that Cronenberg could fetishize anything - from a deformed corpse to a shiny chrome engine.

When his prized dragster goes up in flames, renowned driver Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson appears down for the count. FastCo corporate rep Phil Adamson doesn’t want to spring for another vehicle, and besides, there’s a perfectly good automobile waiting for someone capable to pilot it to victory. Of course, this leaves funny car trainee Billy “The Kid” Brocker feeling a little unappreciated. Things get worse when Adamson demands Johnson take over the driving of the fabled asphalt fastback. Tempers flare both on and off the track, with reigning champion Gary “The Blacksmith” Black doing most of the jawing. Eventually, Adamson grows tired of Johnson’s prima donna ways, and plans of replacing him with the entire Blacksmith crew. When he discovers this, Johnson makes off with his machine, preps it for the upcoming Race of Champions, and hopes to put Adamson, Black and FastCo in their place once and for all.

by Bill Gibron

17 May 2009

Fans know you can’t create it on purpose. Aficionados recognize its rarity and embrace such scattershot infrequency. While they occasionally try, producers, writers, and directors almost never get it right, and the pathway of such good cinematic intentions is strewn with misguided attempts with names like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavara and Snakes on a Plane. Of course, we are talking about schlock here, the brazen b-movie madness that arrives when a ridiculous idea is meshed with an unworkable approach to create a kind of perfect storm of celluloid patheticness. The result can almost always be counted on for a laugh or two, the entire experience chalked up to yet another case of ambition thwarted by ability. But then there are the rare exceptions where intention meets incompetence, the endgame being so insanely sublime and deliciously dumb that it’s almost impossible to drink in all at once. Lovers of such lunacy, prepare yourselves for the god-awful greatness of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. It’s everything you think it is, and much, much less.

Hoping to visit some whale pods while listening to Mozart, noted oceanographer Emma NcNeil “borrows” an expensive underwater submersible and does a bit of exploring. She unwillingly discovers something frozen beneath the Alaska ice. Before it can register, a military training exercise unleashes the prehistoric beasts. Soon thereafter, a plane is downed by a massive shark. Elsewhere, an oil platform is destroyed by a giant octopus. In an attempt to understand what she saw, Emma looks up her old professor and mentor Lamar Sanders. They then hook up with Japanese scientist Dr. Seiji Shimada who is also investigating the situation. As death and mayhem rule the sea, the American Government, under the auspices of hard-assed officer Allan Baxter, demands that our trio take on the monstrous duo. When their first plan fails, they decide to let the creatures do what they do best - destroy each other. All they have to do is lure them away from civilization and let nature take its “Thrilla in Manilla” course. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

by Bill Gibron

16 May 2009

When DVD first arrived as a home video format, the notion of added content was its biggest selling point. Fans of films that had previously been presented sans extras were now salivating - cinematically speaking - over the wealth of information this new presentation paradigm could provide. And indeed, throughout the years, companies have made it their goal to take favored titles and reissue them with a larger and larger assortment of bonus features. Now comes Blu-ray, a technology that allows even more information to be packed onto each plastic covered aluminum disc - and with it, the clear notion of digital features overkill. A prime example of this desire to overindulge comes with Lionsgate’s latest release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. While this is not the first time the movie has been offered in a “special edition” package, the sheer wealth of material here is enough to make a motion picture aficionado sit up and shout “No More!”

For those unfamiliar with the genre-changing effort, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is everything writer/director James Cameron’s first installment in the burgeoning franchise offered times 20. It’s bigger, more ambitious, loaded with special effects (including the then novel seamless introduction of CGI), and takes the story of a time traveling robot bent on assassinating the man responsible for a rebellion in a future war between humans and machines and twists the allegiances and the possible outcomes. It offered bodybuilder turned cultural superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger a chance to expand on his iconic role, brought newcomers Edward Furlong and Robert Patrick into the mix, and made Linda Hamilton into a lean, mean female fighting badass. With action amped over into warp drive and stunning visual acumen, Cameron reset the standard for future shock thrillers, something follow-up filmmakers have been cribbing since its debut 18 years ago.

by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2009

While sports reporters have sat back and lamented laboriously about the apparent death of “the sweet science” (aka, boxing), mixed martial arts and its various pugilistic paradigms (cage fighting, pit fighting, bare knuckles, etc.) have slowly taken over the squared circle demographic. Returning the art of kicking someone’s ass to the days of no holds barred bedlam, this new breed of brawl is like Thunderdome without the random Tina Turner appearances. It’s pure brutality and body builder frescos, aggression laced with nothing except amped adrenalin. Now, in an attempt to broaden their brawny appeal, certain MMA superstars have made a movie. Entitled Never Surrender, it’s as shameless as it is packed with the kind of product a videogame fed fight fan of this new style of smackdown would adore. 

Diego Carter has just won the championship belt in his professional cage fighting division. How does he celebrate? He hooks up with some random Russian babe at a club and ends up competing in an illegal underground fight tournament. The stakes? Lots of cash - tax free - and the “use” of a sexual consort. If you win, you get your opponent’s bed buddy for the night. If you lose - well, Diego never loses, so that’s not important. While his friends and brother obsess over his whereabouts, our hero continues to kick butt and sample the “spoils” of his victories. But when he learns that the ladies are white slaves to the competition’s director, an evil man named Seifer, and that there is really no hope of escape, Diego decides to settle things once and for all - and there’s only one place where he meters out his brand of justice…in the ring!

Never Surrender is perfect man cave entertainment. It’s all fisticuffs and fetching females in various states of undress. It’s testosterone fueled with ludicrousness, a movie so unabashedly aimed at the crotch of its potential viewers that it barely comes up for some fresh, musk free air. The brainchild of former champion/fighter extraordinaire Hector Echavarria (who wrote, produced, directed AND stars here), this is merely an excuse for 89 breezy minutes of sex and violence. When Diego and his pals aren’t messing up wannabes who think they can challenge their well chiseled sense of propriety, they’re beating the snot out of each other in ADD edited action scenes. It has to be said that, as a filmmaker, Echavarria gets the concept of celluloid clashes right. His fights are gladiatorial in nature, ebbing and flowing before faces are smashed directly into the canvas.

He also loves the ladies. While the primary casting commitment needed to be an actress here revolves around a desire to show off your dirty pillows, our director makes the most of his monkey business. It’s as if Zalman King stepped off the set of Red Shoe Diaries circa 1992 and decided to make Bloodfist IX: Tits and Tap Outs. The longue lizard muzak in the background. The emphasis on nubile flesh being literally manhandled by battle weary hunks. If it weren’t for the post-modern LA/Las Vegas setting, you’d swear this was some kind of perverse peplum. Scattered throughout are Eschavarria’s pals - men with names like Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, Anderson “The Spider” Silva, BJ “The Prodigy” Penn, and someone this critic has actually heard of, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Together, they turn a nonstop barrage of barely believable elements into a grand goofy guilty pleasure.

The biggest props, however, need to go to Patrick Kilpatrick as the vile, villainous Seifer. This is a meat puppet who clearly believes every sentiment slipping out of his chiseled, cauliflowered façade. Though he’s not a professional fighter, he has the look of someone who has used his biceps instead of his brains to solve problems. Attempting a passable Eastern European accent (lots of V-ed “W"s here), he comes across as malevolence housed in a steroided stump of a human being. He’s the reason we care about anything here. His omnipresent threat, positioned against the inevitability of a last act showdown, pushes Never Surrender forward where it would otherwise stumble and stop.

As for our multifaceted lead, Echavarria suffers from his resemblance to another ‘80s icon. When you squint your eyes and add a pronounced Bronx honk, this Argentine athlete looks striking like Andrew Dice Clay, down to the slicked back hair and chest forward persona. If he wasn’t spewing Shaolin style proverbs about being true to yourself, you’d swear he’d be cracking wise with curse-word laden nursery rhymes. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of the fighters present - capable, if not very polished. They can definitely stand tall during the well choreographed fight scenes. But give them a ream of dialogue, or even worse, a silent sequence where they must react to something off camera, and they turn into Carl Lewis throwing out the first pitch at a 2003 Seattle Mariners’ game. They’re not bad, just a little befuddled by thinking with anything other than their mitts.

As for the DVD, Lionsgate does little to celebrate this attempt at cinema. There’s a nice, EPK-like Making-of, which tends to let the montages, and not the cast and crew, do the talking. Then there’s “Anatomy of a Fight”, which does a much better job of explaining Echavarria’s directing style and the amount of work that went into ‘faking’ these fights. Last but definitely least, the horrid half-metal musings of a band known as 12 Stones gets a chance to remind us of how awful the opening song is by offering “Adrenaline” as an actual video. Joy. What would have been nice is a commentary track, Echavarria and his fellow fighters settled down to explain their love of MMA and the sport in general. This would help those outside the mixed martial arts sphere of influence understand the men involved, and the attraction to such brazen brutality.

If all you want is groin-grabbing entertainment that never even attempts to engage you on an intellectual level, then Never Surrender will be your flawless fight club companion. It’s unapologetic at delivering exactly what you expect from a movie made up of MMA members, and it delivers said viciousness with enough panache and bare bodkin to serve its demographic very well indeed. As it continues to put traditional boxing in its place, as it removes the tag of art from anything having to do with the muscular destruction of another human’s being, mixed martial arts moves closer and closer to the kind of professional “status” that wrestling once enjoyed - a massive, multimedia spectacle that was eventually undone by the inability to deny how staged it all was. This genre is far from fake. Still, it has a way to go to achieve universal appeal - and Never Surrender is an excellent example of why.

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